MINYA, Egypt — An Egyptian court here on Monday sentenced to death the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and more than 680 other people after a swift mass trial on charges of inciting or committing acts of violence that led to the destruction of a police station and the killing of an officer. – New York Times, April 28, 2014
Egypt’s military-backed government has followed a pattern established by a long line of Egyptian political leaders who have exhibited public religiosity and presented themselves as men of God. Notably, the recently-ratified constitution—drafted by a group of fifty people hand-selected by the nation’s military-installed president—did not do away with an article dictating Islam as the official religion of the state and Islamic Shari’ah as the primary source of legislation.
Three factors make the current Egyptian regime’s use of religion significant, however. First, the regime took power in a cataclysmic event apparently aimed at saving the country from a group, the Muslim Brotherhood, allegedly bent on exploiting religion for political gain; second, the post-coup government has suggested that secularism is a safer political path, as evidenced by its decision to ban religious parties; and third (and arguably most importantly) the regime has employed religion to justify a host of repressive policies.
On July 3, 2013, the day of Egypt’s coup against democratically-elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, Egyptian General Abdulfattah Al-Sisi sought religious legitimacy by surrounding himself with both the Coptic Christian Pope and the head of Al-Azhar Mosque, Egypt’s supreme Islamic authority. In the weeks and months since, the Egyptian regime has relied heavily on the Church and Al-Azhar, both of which have been staunch supporters. Shortly after the coup, various religious institutions announced their support for the military-backed government and for Morsi’s removal, sometimes defending the government against allegations that what took place on July 3 was a military coup.
Both the Church and Al-Azhar have obediently toed the government line, encouraged a ‘yes’ vote on the 2014 constitution, and lavished praise on Al-Sisi, who was promoted to Field Marshal shortly after the constitution was ratified. Religious scholars supportive of the regime are regularly featured on state television, often either praising the current government or denouncing the Muslim Brotherhood. One Imam recently wrote a poem in praise of Al-Sisi, while a Coptic Priest publicly admired Al-Sisi’s beauty. An Azharite scholar even proclaimed in a televised address that both Al-Sisi and Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim are messengers sent by God to rescue Egypt from the throes of the Muslim Brotherhood.
One could argue that these types of support and praise are natural extensions of the regime’s popularity and that Egypt’s current leaders have not sought them, but there’s sufficient evidence of government manipulation of religion to believe otherwise. In late January it was announced that Egypt’s government would begin to dictate the topics of Friday Mosque Sermons, while the military has solicited the help of famous Islamic religious figures in a propaganda campaign designed to cement the regime’s religious legitimacy.
Popular television preacher Amr Khaled was asked to address military conscripts, and tells them in a video recorded lecture that they’re performing tasks beloved by God. Dr. Ali Gumah, Egypt’s former Grand Mufti, was asked by the regime to deliver a lecture to Egyptian military officers and other members of the security forces. In his lecture, attended by both Al-Sisi and Ibrahim, Gumah calls the military “heroes” and tells them that God, the Prophet Muhammad, and the believers are with them in their battle against disloyal Egyptians, and that they’re on the “path of God.”
He then describes his dealings with “the group”—an implicit reference to the Muslim Brotherhood—and argues that they’re killers and liars. Gumah also calls the Brotherhood out as “kharijites,” a group considered heretical by Muslim scholars. Instructing the army to “shoot to kill” violent protesters, Gumah explains the difference between legitimate war and murder, implying that the killing carried out by Egypt’s security forces is legitimate.
Taking place as it did around the time Egyptian security forces dispersed pro-Brotherhood protest sites (what Human Rights Watch called the “worst mass unlawful killings” in Egypt’s modern history) Gumah’s address can be seen both as a type of pep talk to security personnel frightened by talk of massacring hundreds of unarmed civilians, and as an attempt by the military-backed government to protect itself against allegations that, by eliminating Islamists, it was acting against Islam.
Also troubling is evidence, presented by Human Rights Watch, that the regime “failed to intervene” to stop violent attacks on churches in August, “even when they had been informed of ongoing attacks.” This may be a sign that the regime is willing to stoke sectarian tensions in order to gain leverage in its war against the Muslim Brotherhood. In the aftermath of the church attacks, the regime accused the Brotherhood, later labeling the group a terrorist organization. The accusations and terrorism label came in spite of repeated denunciations of violence by the Brotherhood, the absence of evidence linking them to terrorism, and the fact that an al-Qaeda-affiliated extremist group has claimed responsibility for much of the recent violence in the area.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s alleged misuse of religion was offered up as a major justification for Egypt’s military coup, which deposed Morsi, a longtime Brotherhood leader. Yet given that the post-coup government has arguably been more forceful about using religion as a tool than the Brotherhood, and has used religion to validate violent (and other) crimes, one has to ask why many secular Brotherhood critics have not batted an eye.